Album Review: The Oh Hellos – Dear Wormwood
The first time I heard The Oh Hellos, I could tell they were the real deal. Not only was it a fun debut album to cover, there was a strand of that quality of unique artistry that only comes along once in awhile. Personifying the New Folk explosion in the past few years, The Oh Hellos have taken steps toward a newer, more progressive sound in their latest album Dear Wormwood.
The track “Prelude” is atmospheric and crescendos into an album that immediately has the feeling of being epic. Then the second track “Bitter Water” takes on a typical Oh Hellos sound, complete with the gang vocals their fans love. It’s melodic and full of voices. And the mandolin meanders up and down the melody line. (Which, if I remember right, is almost exactly what I wrote about their last album. Still true. Still amazing.)
“There Beneath” has more breathtaking vocals and sonic structures. Feeling a bit more like something from Damien Rice or similar atmospheric singer songwriters, The Oh Hellos have taken a “high production” value on this album compared to some of their more stripped down performances on previous albums. That said, the message of “There Beneath” is about looking for the real beauty in things. It comes across as an understated but still powerful redemptive message that remains at the heart of The Oh Hellos music through their discography.
“Exeunt” has a real sense of maturity both in lyrics and progressive musicianship. It’s about learning in life and the complexity of a relationship. It’s about moving and moving on. “I have set my will; I am leaving.” What strikes me as fascinating about this track is that it’s really this sort of broken-hearted country song, but it’s in an upbeat folky instrumentation and style that almost obscures the message. But it highlights the anger and determination more than the sadness, so it works. So good.
Then there’s “Caesar,” probably my favorite on this album. If you make it through the first listen without getting chills, I’d be surprised. The strings dance with precision and perfection. They make a path for clear, succinct lyrics. It has a timeless, deeply emotional core to it. “Look to the sky where the Son will be shown, heaven and earth with the King on His throne.” Oh yeah. It’s an awesome prophetic image, sung with the conviction of an Easter morning cantata.
“This Will End” is a folk singer’s folk song. It’s about learning how to live a better life. It actually makes the listener want to live a better life. Instrumentally, everything is there. It’s got a kick drum, banjo, mandolin, and of course great harmonies. It’s about seeing the tragic end of the world (or life?) but knowing that it all works out for the good of those who love the Lord. The hopeful bridge, complete with choir-like gang vocals, successfully bridge the gap between folk and worship music. Close your eyes on this one. It’s otherworldly (pun intended).
“Soldier Poet King” has an Old World flair to it. Something about it reminds me of one of my favorite folk songs of all time, “One Tin Soldier,” by Coven. It’s about a day in the future when all things will be fulfilled which have been foretold. I think it’s the perfect sound for the hopeful message of the gospel. The king will return, the song promises. The gang vocals again provide this extra layer of “feel good.”
The title track “Dear Wormwood” refers to the star in the book of Revelation. The eerie, harmonic vocals are befitting the subject. The complex songwriting reminds me of something the grandfather of Christian pop music, Larry Norman, would have approved of. Rather than merely copying the typical pop folk music being produced today, The Oh Hellos have made a point of meeting and surpassing that standard. “I know who you are now,” the repetitive refrain, is difficult to listen to (despite being hauntingly beautiful) because of the unsettling truth that it holds. This is not a track for the faint of heart.
“Danse Macabre” continues a bit of the Old World flavor mentioned earlier. It also sounds like a strange Christmas song. The album finishes with the exquisite “piece” (not a song, it’s a piece) called “Thus Always to the Tyrants.” It feels like it has influences from medieval Europe blended with Beach Boys harmonies. There’s hope and joy in the instrumentation, the voices, and the overall ethos of the piece. It’s a great way to end an album that points toward the promise of promises. Excellent stuff.
For those who have ears to listen, this album is phenomenal. It’s undoubtedly going to make my personal top albums of the year. It’s probably not something that’s going to get attention from the Grammy Awards and maybe not even the Dove Awards, but it should. It deserves extraordinarily high praise. But I can tell from following their career that Maggie and Tyler don’t do this because they’re looking for acclaim. They do it because they love it and they were made for it. This is an exquisite album. If you trust my reviews at all – even if you’re not particularly religious – you really need to dig into this exceptional artistry, songwriting, and lyrical brilliance.